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Legal abortion in jeopardy

Which road to take in its defense?

Published Jan 23, 2006 9:12 PM

Jan. 22 is the 33rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. But given the impending confirmation of right-wing ideologue Samuel Alito, legal abortion is in jeopardy as never before.

During the recent Senate hearings pro-choice and civil rights advocates exposed the many bigoted, reactionary, pro-corporate, anti-Roe positions Alito took as a lawyer for the Reagan administration and later as a judge. But despite their hue and cry, Sen. Dianne Feinstein—a long-time supporter of legal abortion—told “Face the Nation” on Jan. 15 that the Democrats in the Senate will not filibuster to block the nomination.

Feinstein said that even though she might disagree with Alito, “that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be on the court.”

That leaves many women’s advocacy and reproductive rights groups across the U.S., which have traditionally relied on the Democrats to defend abortion rights, out in the cold.

This is a momentous development. This betrayal creates an unprecedented crisis for the organized women’s movement and for the millions of women of child-bearing age in this country who will be affected if Roe is overturned. While it’s still too early to know how these organizations will respond, this historic crisis will surely instigate intense debate within many groups and among many pro-choice activists and supporters about what course of action to take at this critical juncture.

A number of options are possible. One course of action is to continue to depend on the Democratic Party. But that’s not likely to produce results, given its history over the past decade of submission to the reactionary Republican agenda. For example, Democrats voted a few weeks ago for a budget that instituted horrific cuts in education, housing and health care while rewarding the already wealthy with more tax cuts.

Sticking with the Democrats is a dead-end strategy. A second option is to throw in the towel. But given that one out of three women in this country has an abortion as a means of birth control during her lifetime, that would mean selling out the modern-day struggle for women’s liberation. Legal abortion has become the keystone of that fight.

Though some long-time activists decry the continued focus on abortion, they don’t view it as part of the class struggle.

Just as the ruling class, whose power comes from owning capitalist private property and from controlling it through the patriarchy, backs the war in Iraq, so too it backs Bush’s anti-woman agenda. The ruling class does not want women, who represent more than half the working class and the oppressed in this country, to determine their own destiny. That would challenge its class privilege and its power to exploit and oppress at a time when it’s intent on maximizing its profits in order to dominate the world.

Despite the myth that the Democrats represent the interests of working and poor people, their purpose has always been to serve the ruling class. That’s why they’ve chosen to genuflect before the ruling class and jettison the issue.

A third option is to strike an independent course, free of both ruling-class parties, and build alliances with workers’ and civil rights movements and all those fighting for economic and social justice. That course of action would be in sync with how the most important gains for workers and the oppressed were won over the last century—through militant mass struggle.

Mother Jones neatly summed it up: “Don’t mourn. Organize.”

The workers’ sit-down strikes won unions in the 1930s, which bettered working conditions for all workers. And Rosa Parks’ refusal to cooperate with segregation in 1955 propelled the drive for Black liberation that continues to this day.

It’s important to note that the modern women’s movement was inspired by the civil rights struggle, just as the fight for women’s suffrage grew out of the abolitionist movement in the 19th century.

Building an independent militant mass movement, which highlights the special needs of women of color as part of the fight for all women, including lesbian, bisexual and trans women, rural and immigrant, is in the spirit of the women’s liberation movement that exploded in the late 1960s.

Though lawyers and doctors gave legal and medical reasons why abortion should be legal, it was women taking to the streets in huge numbers all around the country that spurred the Supreme Court, with seven Republican to two Democratic appointees, to decide in favor of legal abortion in 1973.

Because two cases involving abortion are already on the Supreme Court’s 2006 calendar and a third—which challenges the legality of the ban on so-called partial birth abortion passed by Congress in 2003—will soon be added to the roster, pro-choice activists and their allies will need to move decisively in the months ahead.

But they can take heart that the movement for legal abortion stretches around the world. Tens of thousands of women marched in Milan, Italy on Jan. 14 to defend the current law allowing abortions during the first three months of pregnancy.

On Nov. 17, the United Nations Human Rights Committee affirmed in a case involving a Peruvian woman that denying access to legal abortion violates women’s most basic human rights. “We are thrilled that the UNHRC has ruled in favor of protecting women’s most essential human rights,” said Luisa Cabal, director of the International Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Every woman who lives in any of the 154 countries that are party to this treaty—including the U.S—now has a legal tool to use in defense of her rights.”

Over the past 33 years women’s health clinics have been blockaded and bombed, doctors have been murdered and legislation in many states has set severe limits on access to abortion. A crucial battle for legal abortion lies ahead. Just as a coalition of women’s groups—including for the first time organizations of women of color—held a multinational march of a million, young and old, in April 2004 in defense of women’s reproductive rights, it’s time to take to the streets once again.

Sue Davis, a long-time activist for women’s rights, edited “Women Under Attack: Victories, Backlash and the Fight for Reproductive Freedom” (South End Press)